On Photographic Vision

An attempt to describe what can´t be described


I have often asked myself the following question: "What exactly makes a good photograph?" 

I have never answered that question for myself - as I haven´t answered it to anybody else for that matter. Yesterday a fellow blogger stated that I apparently had a tendency to fall over beauty whereever I went - and she asked how I did it. I realised - partly because of that question - that I had to make an honest attempt to come up with some sort of answer to the obvious question. If not for the person asking, then for myself. 

I will try to do so in this article. I cannot guarantee that it will be a good answer - chances are that it will be a load of rubbish. But it´ll at least be a try. 

Now, in order to get started in a proper way, I will devide the answer into two main cathegories: 

1. The tech stuff

 2. The art of seeing photographically 


How did Hemingway become such a great writer? I know - he had a very good typewriter. No, honestly! That´s bulls.. - err not true. Anyone can tell. But it´s obvious that it was good for him having a good typewriter. One that had the advantages he needed in order to get a nice workflow. But you could give me any typewriter or computer - and I wouldn´t become a good writer anyhow. Do you get my drift? 

It´s the same with photographers. Henri Cartier Bresson - one of the World´s finest photographers - preferred to carry a simple rangefinder camera with him anywhere he went. It was a Leica - it had good optics, but it was a simple camera nevertheless. What´s important for a photographer is that the camera will allow her to control what is happening. The human behind the device should be able to control shutter speed, aperture, light sensitivity, depth of field and focus as a minimum. Most cameras, including digitals, give you that option. It´s important that the photographer learns the craftmanship behind controlling light - which is basically what you do with the camera.

 Then there´s the question about digital versus film. And endless debates about how many megapixels are needed if it´s a digital camera. Not to mention which brand of camera - there are religious debates going on, well almost holy flaming wars, in various forums on the ´Net whether it´s Nikon or Canon that will save the world. In my opinion all this is not really important. What´s important is that the picture is taken when you press the button - not three seconds later - and that the optics are properly made. Glass. Big enough to let sufficient light in.

 Then there´s the thing about post-processing. I will strongly advice any photographer to get herself a photo editor with the ability to work in layers. That will make a huge difference in the quality of the final photograph. Such editors can be quite expensive - but there´s a free open-source option you can download. It´s really good - I use it myself sometimes. It´s originally made for Linux - but you can download it for Windows here. I am what probably could be described as an advanced amateur. I insist on maintaining full control over my photographs - so I don´t allow my camera to process my picture in any way at all. If the pics are stored as jpeg files in the camera, any camera will process the pictures to some extent. Many cameras, however, will allow you to store the picture information as RAW files. Meaning that the information stored on the memory card is unprocessed information directly from the sensor in the camera. Not altered at all. Therefore I need to have an editor that can open raw files for me to work with. Photoshop does the trick - others too. Many don´t. After opening the raw file, I´ll crop, process white balance, light, contrast, gamut, well about anything that is needed when processing. It´ll take some time - but it´s worth while. It´s possible to create photographs just the way you want them. But don´t start here - work on jpeg files in the beginning, and you´ll quickly learn. Just to show you what I mean, this is the same picture before and after processing. The first is right off the camera as a raw file - saved as jpeg with no processing at all, the second is my interpretation of the landscape - made after my memory and in my spirit.

Right from the camera

After post-processing

See the difference?

The art of seeing photographically

You have probably experienced this. You´ve been on holiday - and you´ve spent some time in the mountains. You were awestruck by one fantastic panorama after the other - and you photographed them all, wanting to bring these magnificent landscapes back home so that you´d be able to remember them and to show them to your friends. And what happened? You found yourself sitting with a heep of nice photographs. 

Nice enough, but nothing like the real thing. The mountains had become flat and, well - quite small to look at to be honest. Nothing to show your friends - they´d probably think that they had seen stuff like this a thousand times before. I think we all did that - I did. Many times. What was the matter? 

I have learned that in order to make a good photograph, you should aim at making a good photograph. (Don´t think I´m loosing it - there´s a reason for saying this. Hang on a moment). Don´t try to bring reality back home. Can´t be done. If you try, you´ll make a nice copy, if you´re lucky. But it´ll not be a photograph. If you want a photograph - think of it as a photograph from the beginning. Don´t make photocopies. You will never be able to reproduce your wonderful experience anyhow. If you will capture the mountain, you´ll have to shoot it from an other angle than the one you first saw. Go closer. point your camera upwards. Make a foreground. Use depth of field - shoot 100 shots of that damned mountain - and when you come home throw 99 away and keep only the best one. Do this with every motive you can think of. This will be invaluable feedback every time. Don´t be afraid to make lousy pictures. 

For everyone of mine you´ll see, I will have thrashed 50. Look at photographs. Go to the library and borrow books by the best photographers in the World. Be inspired. Talk to other photographers. Learn from them - on the ´Net or offline. Learning to see photographically is almost as difficult as teaching it, so I won´t even try teaching. I´m busy learning every day, and have been for many years. Make it a passion. A calling? Give it a lot of attention. That´s the way to make a good photograph. (Or you´ll just get a lucky shot from time to time. That happens too)